Image credit: Jacob Berry (Courtesy of Arizona)
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No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 4 Grand Canyon (10 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Oklahoma State vs. No. 3 UC Santa Barbara (4 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Arizona (40-15)
Season in a Sentence: Led by arguably the best lineup in the country, Arizona turned out to be the class of the Pac-12 this season, losing only two series to UCLA and Stanford on the way to winning the Pac-12 regular-season title, earning a regional bid for the first time since 2017.
Best Pitcher: Garrett Irvin, LHP—Pitching is not what this Arizona team is known for, but it got better as the season went on, and Irvin’s steadiness in the rotation was a part of that. The lefthander is 5-2 with a 3.93 ERA in 75.2 innings. Those numbers might not blow you away, but they are more than good enough on a team that swings the bats as well as the Wildcats.
Best Hitter: Jacob Berry, DH—A third baseman by trade, Berry found a home mostly as Arizona’s DH and emerged as the best hitter in a lineup of great hitters. He’s hitting .371/.463/.710 with 16 doubles, five triples, 15 home runs and 64 RBIs, and has clearly announced himself as a player to watch nationally over the next couple of years in college baseball.
Outlook: Arizona caught an extremely tough draw with the three other teams in this regional, but it’s a team equipped to win in the way that a regional often demands that you win. By the end of the weekend, just about everyone’s pitching will be taxed, and when that’s the case, the Wildcats’ lineup is the last one you want to be matched up against.
No. 2 Oklahoma State (35-17-1)
Season in a Sentence: Oklahoma State treaded water for much of the season in Big 12 play, but just as it was approaching being on the bubble, it got hot late, winning its last two Big 12 series and advancing all the way to the Big 12 Tournament title game against Texas Christian to earn an at-large bid and its eighth straight postseason appearance, the longest such streak in the conference.
Best Pitcher: Justin Campbell, RHP—Few pitchers made as big a leap as Campbell did in 2021. He began the season as the midweek starter and dominated in that role before being moved into the weekend rotation right as Big 12 play was getting going in earnest. Going into this weekend, he’s 7-1 with a 2.08 ERA, 100 strikeouts, 24 walks and a .199 opponent batting average in 78 innings.
Best Hitter: Christian Encarnacion-Strand, 3B—On a team that is somewhat lighter offensively than we’re used to seeing from Oklahoma State, Encarnacion-Strand’s arrival has been a revelation. He was hot right out of the gate, hitting five homers across the first three weeks of the season, and he never really slowed down. He sports a .362/.437/.674 slash line with 17 doubles, 15 home runs and 66 RBIs, which was enough to earn him Big 12 newcomer of the year honors.
Outlook: Oklahoma State makes a habit of playing well when the bright lights are on, and it will have to do so to come out of this regional, which is one of the toughest in the entire bracket. A matchup between Campbell and either of UCSB’s high-profile starting pitchers will make for a nice mound matchup on Friday. If OSU makes it to a regional final showdown with Arizona, it will have to find a way to at least slow the Wildcats’ lineup a bit, because it might be too tall a task to expect the Cowboys to keep pace otherwise.
No. 3 UC Santa Barbara (39-18)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 3B Cole Cummings (1st), SS Jordan Sprinkle (1st), OF Zach Rodriguez (1st), SP Rodney Boone (1st), SP Michael McGreevy (1st), RP Carter Benbrook (1st), DH Christian Kirtley (2nd), OF Broc Mortensen (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: A Top 25 team in the preseason, UC Santa Barbara missed opportunities for marquee series wins against Oregon, UC Irvine and UCLA, but it took care of business in just about every other series on the schedule and ended up earning an at-large bid as the last team in the field, giving the Gauchos five regional appearances under Andrew Checketts.
Best Pitcher: Rodney Boone, LHP—This designation could go to either Boone or Michael McGreevy, as both had excellent seasons, but the lefthander gets the nod. He’s 10-4 with a 2.20 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 90 innings. With an injury to Zach Torra having cost him most of the season and the UCSB bullpen leaving something to be desired at times, quality starting pitching was a must at the front of the rotation and Boone has provided that.
Best Hitter: Jordan Sprinkle, SS—Sprinkle got an opportunity to be the everyday shortstop for the Gauchos when incumbent McClain O’Connor had to spend much of the middle portion of the season nursing a nagging injury, and suffice it to say that the second-year freshman ran with the opportunity. He’ll go into the regional hitting .358/.410/.558 with 18 doubles, seven home runs, 30 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. Honorable mention goes to outfielder Zach Rodriguez, who leads the team in hitting at .363 and outfielder Broc Mortensen, who has 15 homers.
Outlook: Coming into the season, UCSB had the look of a potential Omaha team, and while it didn’t necessarily live up to that billing during the regular season, that opportunity still exists and the talent to get it done is still present. The biggest tripwire for the Gauchos this season has been the bullpen, which has been spotty. With that in mind, it seems extremely important that UCSB stay on the good side of the bracket to avoid having to play extra games to get to the regional final.
No. 4 Grand Canyon (39-19-1)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 3B Jacob Wilson (1st) SS Channy Ortiz (1st), INF Elijah Buries (1st), SP Pierson Ohl (1st), OF Brock Burton (2nd), DH Tayler Aguilar (2nd), SP Carter Young (2nd), RP Frankie Scalzo (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: For years a very good regular-season team in the WAC that was held out of the postseason either due to the NCAA’s mandated transition period or because of losses in the WAC Tournament, Grand Canyon broke through to the postseason for the first time this season by winning the conference tournament after going 39-19-1 overall and 29-7 in the WAC during the regular season.
Best Pitcher: Pierson Ohl, RHP—The WAC pitcher of the year, Ohl is in the process of putting together the best season of his career, which has already been quite impressive. The righthander is a big-time strike-thrower who has struck out 100 and walked just 12 this season to go along with a 2.36 ERA and a .208 opponent batting average in 95.1 innings. Ohl facing the Arizona lineup to open this regional will be fun to watch.
Best Hitter: Elijah Buries, INF—Buries has played some first base and some third base for the Lopes this season, but regardless of where the freshman has played, he’s hit the ball hard. He leads the team in all three slash line categories at .365/.427/.553 and in stolen bases with 13. He also has 10 doubles, six homers and 38 RBIs.
Outlook: The Lopes are an extremely tricky No. 4 seed in this regional and each of the other teams would be wise not to overlook them. In addition to being led by a bonafide ace and a deep lineup, GCU has familiarity with the top two teams set to play in Tucson. It played Arizona twice this season in the midweek, winning one of the two games, and it has played series against Oklahoma State in each of the last two seasons, winning the three-game set in Phoenix in 2020.